Actually, he’s not a recruit to my club at all.Â He doesn’t know I exist, and, of course, I don’t actually have a club.Â But anyone who’s read even a fraction of the outpourings on this blog will know how strongly I believe in the need to communicate about money and financial services in ways that people find interesting and engaging.Â And judging from his column in last week’s paper (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/dec/13/saturday-ian-jack) the illustrious Guardian journalist Ian Jack agrees with me.
I really do strongly recommend clicking on the link and reading his piece – it is an outstanding article, taking a line that I’ve never seen before on an op-ed page of a national newspaper.Â But in case you don’t, the one-sentence summary is that Jack now greatly regrets his failure, and the failure of other journalists, to get their heads round financial subjects both for their own benefit and for the benefit of their readers.
I couldn’t agree more, but all the sameÂ he shouldn’tÂ feel too bad about it.Â The truth is, the lack of enthusiasm among arts-educated scribblers for the world of numbers and symbols entered via the keys on the top row of the keyboard is matchedÂ only by the lack of enthusiasm among providers of financial services for making their world at all accessible to them.Â Knowledge is power, and in the financial world power is guarded jealously.Â No-one wants anyone to understand anything, not least because more often that not, if they did, they’d urgently want to put a stop to it.
But – as I’ve written many times before – if we really are now entering a phase in history in which people are more responsible for their financial wellbeing, in the short, medium and long term, than they’ve ever been before, then breaking down these screens of opacity and mystification really is an important and urgent priority.Â During a period in which paternalistic but relatively benign institutions of the State and major employers looked after most people’s needs fairly adequately, you could argue that it was no more necessary for ordinary people to know how their pensions were funded or what the cost of healthcare was than, say, how to build a motorway or how to budget forÂ a new primary school project.Â These were things that other people looked after for you.Â But those days have gone.Â And, as Ian Jack says, we can’t carry on being as ignorant as we are.
This is not – emphatically not – a plea for the much-vaunted “financial education.”Â Rightly or wrongly,Â I’ve always beenÂ extremely suspicious of this.Â It seems to me to be a delaying tactic on the part of the knowledge-owning priesthood, offering the potential of access to their hidden world but onlyÂ to people willing to spendÂ half a lifetime learning their arcane codes and secrets.Â Education is no bad thing, but it’s not what’s required.Â Â
What is requiredÂ is clarity and engagement.Â Half of this, it’s true, can’t be achieved without massive root-and-branch simplification of our insanely complicated tax and benefits system, and of the myriad of grotesquelyÂ over-engineered financial products designed partly to fit in with that system and partly to enable financial advisers to make as much money as possible from selling them, preferably without the customer noticing.Â But the other half of achieving clarity and engagement, as Ian Jack has belatedly realised, requires no more than a grim determination among writers and communicators to do their sodding jobs, get their heads round the subject and write some stuff on this really important subject that people actually want to read.
Ian Jack is a brilliant writer.Â If he really intends to have a go, the results will be well worth looking out for.